Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Human Phenome Project

Soon, we will all be able to get our genomes fully sequenced: we will be able to look at our genotypes. We may not know what all the genes do — it will still be some time before we have mastered that. But we will know what they are.

The far harder task is to understand how genes interact with the environment to make an actual organism with particular characteristics — that is, the phenotype. The phenotype is what Galton was measuring in his laboratory. And while the human genome project was a challenge for the last century, the human phenome project will be the challenge for this one.

Measuring all this sounds impossible. Yet at least two phenomics initiatives are already underway. One is the U.K.’s Biobank project, the other is the Personal Genome Project, led by the latter-day polymath George Church. The aim of both projects is to collect large quantities of information — genetic, phenotypic and environmental — from large numbers of people, in an attempt to understand how genes and environment interact to produce each of us. Biobank, indeed, measures some of the same traits that Galton measured, including lung capacity and the strength of the hand grip. What a shame that Galton did not collect, from each of his several thousand subjects, a lock of hair from which we could now extract DNA.

(Biobank and the Personal Genome Project differ in several important respects. For example, Biobank will link to health records, but aims to keep personal information confidential. The Personal Genome Project aims to recruit individuals willing to make many details of their lives public.)

The advertisement for Galton’s Anthropometric Laboratory is on display at the Galton Collection, University College London. This tiny museum contains many of Galton’s records and instruments, and if you are in London and you’re interested in the history of biology,
it is worth arranging a visit.

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